My five favourite books

In what she describes as a ‘Five Faves Geneameme’ Jill Ball of Geniaus, the Australian family history blog, has invited other family history bloggers to share details of five books they’ve found most useful in their ‘geneactivities’. (Enough puns already … )

So here, whittled down with great difficulty and in no particular order, are my chosen inspirations:

 

Australia, Frank Welsh (cropped)  Australia: A New History of the Great Southern Land, by Frank Welsh (The Overlook Press, New York, 2006)

Since my books are set very much in the context of early colonial Australia I needed to gen up on my history. This book is not just all-encompassing, it looks at Australia in the context of a larger colonial world. It’s also very readable and has a nice, wry take on historical events, which I really like. 

 Station Life, Peter Taylor Next on the list is Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1988)

Also very readable, with some wonderful anecdotes about the New Chums in early colonial Australia. (The ‘New Chum’ was the Pom who arrived fresh-faced and dewy-eyed and ready to make his fortune on the land without knowing a horse from a heifer; a bit like me.) Essential introduction to a subject I knew nothing about.

 The Timeless Land, Eleanor Dark

Eleanor Dark was doing in the 1940s what other writers such as Kate Grenville don’t dare to do in the 21st century, which is to write about events such as the arrival of the First Fleet from the point of  view of Aboriginal people. In fact she writes from the point of view of everyone, from Governor Phillip to convicts and settlers, evenly-handedly and with great perception and understanding. The Timeless Land is book one in a novel trilogy.

 Macquarie Country, D J Bowd cropped

 

Macquarie Country by D G Bowd, (Library of Australian History, 1979)

I had to include this one. It’s about the Hawkesbury – where my ancestors made their first home in New South Wales in 1802 – in the days of Governor Macquarie. It even features my family, who were visited by the governor and his lady wife soon after they arrived in the colony. Full of vivid and useful detail about the earlier days of settlement.

 Old Days Old Ways, Mary Gilmore

 

In her memoir Old Days, Old Ways (Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1934) Mary Gilmore was actually writing about her childhood in the Riverina district in the latter part of the 19th century, where she was brought up. The book is a cornucopia of intricate and sometimes hilarious social history; such as the rope that was strung across the room during the Wagga Wagga Gold Cup ball in order to segregate the ‘grandees’ from the ‘commonage’; and the way in which ladies riding horses in crinolines wore weights in their hems in order that their ankles should remain hidden from the gentlemen. Like Eleanor Dark she writes with great humanity and understanding and, crucially, humour.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pitching your story

for-sale-cropped

Yesterday evening ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) organised a very enlightening meeting with film director and writer Charles Harris on the thorny topic of how to sell your story.

jaws_in_space_3d
(charles-harris.co.uk)

He was referring specifically to the film industry of course, where busy producers expect writers looking for a commission to grab their attention in one sentence, or preferably one phrase, as in ‘Jaws in Space’, which is apparently how the writers sold the idea of the film that turned into Alien, and the title of Harris’ latest book.

Of course if you are an author, and specifically an indie, you will not necessarily be verbally pitching a story in order to get a commission. But what you will be doing is trying to grab readers’ attentions on online retail sites like Amazon, so the same principle applies to your blurb.

In my family history workshops I encourage participants to write a blurb for their book there and then, and then to read them out to the rest of us for our comments: did those few sentences make you want to read the book?

It’s fiendishly hard as we all know. But there’s another thing: if like me you get some way into your story and think to yourself why did I start to write this book in the first place? it helps if at some point you have already written down the answer, in other words what it was that fired you up in the first place, which is to say, the blurb. The blurb can change, it undoubtedly will, and that doesn’t matter. But as Charles mentioned last night for all writers when it comes to pitching an idea, the most important person you should be targetting is yourself.

It can also be a useful unblocker, when you feel yourself grinding to a halt, to take a break and write down, in no more than three sentences, the essence of the story you found so exciting all that time ago.

Thanks to Charles Harris for the talk, to Helena Halme for organising it, and to Waterstone’s Piccadilly for providing the premises (and a few bottles of wine).

If you are interesting in attending meetings like this then it’s worth joining ALLi (click on the logo on the right).

Patsy Trench, London
November 2016

 

Writing about what you don’t know: The Light Bulb Moment

One of the paradoxes facing the family historian is that he or she does not get to choose who or what to write about.

If you are a regular historian or biographer you are likely to be writing about people or events or places that interest you and that you already know something about. But if your ancestor was a limner in Victorian times, or a tipstaff in the Middle Ages, or – in my case, a farmer in 18th century New South Wales – you may just have your work cut out. And if the mantra ‘write what you know’ is anything like true then you are about to stumble blind down a long and tortuous alley.

RAHS logoI have received a Heritage Grant from the Royal Australian Historical Society to write about my great grandfather’s exploits as a pioneer farmer in the Moree district in northern New South Wales. As a Londoner I know nothing about farming, not here in the UK and certainly not in 19th century Australia.

George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather
George Matcham Pitt, my great grandfather, subject of my next book

I can see two faint glimmers of light (three including the grant): the reminder from friends that when I complain yet again that this project is ‘completely beyond me’ that is exactly what I said when I was setting out to write my previous family book The Worst Country in the World.

The second comes from reading about the ‘new chums’: early settlers, usually young men migrating from England to ‘take up’ land in the new colony and make their fortunes, cheerfully confessing to having only ‘a vague idea of cattle as heifers, cows, bulls, and oxen, and as beasts that had horns, and made a great bellowing.’[1]

Starting from a point of total ignorance need not be an obstacle. Knowing nothing means you have no preconceptions, either about your subject matter or your readers’ expectations. But if you can’t get interested in your subject then you can’t expect your readers to either.

The process of researching land regulation and droving practices in 1830s New South Wales is  like trying to get to grips with a foreign language such as Japanese: a sea of hieroglyphs on a page that mean nothing. But with a bit of luck and a lot of persistence, gradually those incomprehensible shapes start to make sense: the veil lifts, the light bulb flashes and Eureka: you’re in business.

Vectoroptics.net

So, as a way of turning ignorance to advantage I am making notes not just of what I’m learning and the sources I’m learning from, but of those light bulb moments.

My first moment came about with the help of a poem called Saltbush Bill by Australia’s unofficial poet laureate Banjo Paterson.

Now is the law of the Overland that all in the West obey —
A man must cover with travelling sheep a six-mile stage a day;
But this is the law which the drovers make, right easily understood,

They travel their stage where the grass is bad, but they camp where the grass is good,
They camp, and they ravage the squatter’s grass till never a blade remains.
Then they drift away as the white clouds drift on the edge of the saltbush plains…
                   

Saltbush Bill was a drover of remarkable talents. The poem goes on to tell how he managed to extend his stay on a squatter’s land by picking a fight with the jackeroo (who was English, and a new-chum), making it last all day and allowing the jackaroo to win in the end so he could proudly return to the homestead claiming he’d licked the interloper; meanwhile Bill’s sheep had strayed way beyond the legal limit of half a mile from the track and spent the day merrily chomping on the squatter’s lush grass, scattering so far and so wide it took a week to muster them before Bill and his now well-fed mob could be on their way again.

Saltbush Bill by Eric Jolliffe
Saltbush Bill by Eric Jolliffe

On  a more sober note, Henry Lawson’s The Drover’s Wife tells of the desolate and desperate isolation of a woman living in the sticks with her kids, her husband absent almost all the time, fighting snakes and loneliness, dressing up on Sundays to go for walks along the riverbank with her kids.

The Drover's Wife by Drysdale
The Drover’s Wife by Russell Drysdale (abc.net.au)

These wonderful pieces are an inspiration to this would-be biographer. They demonstrate how it is possible in a few short lines, or pages, to paint infinitely vivid pictures of early colonial life in outback Australia. The message this delivers to me is: when short of inspiration, look to the poets and the authors. Then once you’ve found the spark, and you can convey the excitement of it to the reader, you are well on the way.

Has anyone else out there experienced a light bulb moment?

[1] Edward Bell, quoted in Station Life in Australia by Peter Taylor